The plight of small live music venues has never been bleaker, as economic and political forces conspire to close their doors for good…
Sign up for IQ Index
The latest industry news to your inbox.
Helen Swan of Lucid, which designed Glastonbury's new "rave cave", Samula, talks sustainability, gender politics and the art of the immersive experience
By Anna Grace on 12 Jul 2019
The team at Lucid, a stage design and festival infrastructure company based in Kent, UK, focuses on creating immersive, environmentally friendly stages for festivals including Glastonbury and Boomtown.
Here, IQ speaks to Lucid co-director Helen Swan about the company’s new Mayan-inspired Glastonbury stage, the importance of being green, and the struggles of being a woman in a heavily male-dominated sector of the industry…
IQ: Tell us a bit about Lucid and your role within it.
HS: Lucid is a creative partnership between me and [co-director] Chris Carr. We met in a field at an immersive festival I ran and quickly realised we shared the same goal: to create environments that affected people’s perspective on life.
We’d both worked with lots of other people as freelancers and in our own companies but realised we could realise our visions far better as a team.
What is the most important part of stage design for you?
It’s a combination of the personal satisfaction of realising our concepts and designs and using our platform to engage and inform people. I remember Chris saying to me: “If I only open the mind of one person at each show we do, then I have achieved something significant.”
It’s true – if we can create engaging spaces that also change perspectives on radical, important issues such as climate, respect and acceptance then we are doing something worthwhile.
“If I only open the mind of one person at each show we do, then I have achieved something significant”
Lucid’s mission is to pioneer sustainable stage design, is a lack of sustainability a big issue in the stage design world?
Yes, particularly when it’s a one-off event. So much goes into the bin at the end as it can cost more to salvage used materials and store them than simply chuck everything into a skip, but this is inherently wrong and we cannot sustain our industry in this way.
At Lucid, we are working to counteract disposable sets by using a system of modular steel frames and brackets. The frames are really durable can be used for years, and when they eventually reach the end of their lives, the metal can be recycled. It means we can reskin frames over and over, massively reducing the need to use virgin materials.
In the festival industry people reuse materials a lot, which is brilliant, but a huge amount of stuff is still wasted. It’s really important to trace the journey of where materials come from, using recycled plastics and sustainably sourced wood, for example.
Your most recent project was the Samula stage at Glastonbury Festival – what were the central inspirations behind the stage?
We knew that the Common – an area in the south-east, ‘naughty’ corner of Glastonbury with roots in Mayan culture – were looking for a venue to replace a stage called the Cave. The Mayan peninsula is an area of Mexico with lots of cenotes, which are giant, lush sinkholes that the Mayans view as a portal between earth and the underworld. We did a load of R&D around this concept and decided to incorporate an unusual crystal with which we’d developed an obsession, bismuth.
We also wanted to have an element of mystery and secrecy, so designed a massive rock frontage with a huge waterfall over a crack in the rock. People could only enter the venue by walking through the crack. During the day it was a really cool, serene place. At night, of course, it transformed into a rave cave.
“When it takes a lot of strength just to be there, it makes it so much harder to succeed”
How was Samula received at Glastonbury?
Reception really exceeded our expectations. We heard that there was an internal crew vote about the best venue and there was huge support for us. People were really surprised by it, and that’s super-exciting. There were huge queues to get in and it was packed until 6am every night.
Samula should be at Glastonbury for three to five years minimum and we would like to grow it in that time. As it’s modular, we can add things in and expand it each year. I really want to bring in more LED to the rock face, for example, and build upon the design of the rock face entrance.
Samula had an 50/50 gender-balanced line-up, was that a conscious decision?
Yes, we loved that the Common made sure this happened. Far fewer female DJs than male are booked, for a multitude of reasons, and this makes a lot of women feel they like they can’t be one. It’s important to champion female DJs and show young women that they do have a space.
I have found it incredibly difficult to be a woman in the music industry. Almost every course I’ve been on and venue or workplace I’ve visited have consisted of almost all, if not all, men. A lot of the time, these men assume you are an assistant, or that your voice is less valuable, and it’s really hard to counter that.
When it takes a lot of strength just to be there, it makes it so much harder to succeed.
What I want to do is create a space within our business where everyone’s voice is valid and every person has a place. It is hard as this is not just a creative industry but also a construction one, and there’s a natural tendency to think men are stronger and can lift more, but that’s bollocks. It’s just practice – it’s about investing time and showing people they are capable. I’m trying to hire female carpenters and welders to change perspectives and make people realise their ideas are just a preconception.
“If you put your core beliefs into a business then you know you’re doing it with integrity”
What other projects are you working on or have completed recently?
We created an arena at Parklife, called the Valley. This was a life-sized dystopian city, 100 metres wide and 25m tall. The bar was a set that looked like an enormous disused car park; we built a factory on a hill, as a Pepsi-sponsored viewing platform. It really blew me away, it was so immersive.
We are also working on a new stage for Boomtown, the Lighthouse. It is going to beam light across the whole festival. There is a huge push for sustainability at Boomtown and the Lighthouse is emblematic of that. It’s representing the old ways and getting back in touch with the earth. The area the stage is in is going to be a place of learning and positivity, and Boomtown are going to use it to demonstrate how sets can built more sustainably.
What does the future hold?
We are going to continue to maximise the immersive experience of fans and the sustainability of our stages – those are the things that are needed in the festival space, as well as an inclusive environment.
Something else I want to do is, in the future, to stipulate in our contract that all our stages must feature a gender-balanced line-up. I think this will only benefit everyone, even if people might object.
If you put your core beliefs into a business then you know you’re doing it with integrity.
Get more stories like this in your inbox by signing up for IQ Index, IQ’s free email digest of essential live music industry news.